I just finished Bulat Okudzhava’s 1961 novella “Будь здоров, школяр,” ‘Stay well, schoolboy’ or, as Edward J. Brown renders the title in Russian Literature Since the Revolution, “Good Luck, Boy!” Brown describes it well:

It sets forth, from the viewpoint of a young volunteer who entered the army before he had finished school, the ugly, monotonous, and dangerous workdays of a front-line soldier. The focus is narrowed to the frame of a single mind, and a rather simple one. The boy’s needs are modest and very basic. He does not want to be killed and he is afraid he will be killed. … The movement of the boy’s thought and the recorded conversations reflect the state of near mental collapse that is the everyday experience of a soldier in combat. He lives in a kind of trance induced by frequent death, noise, and insuperable fatigue. He never knows what he is doing, where he is going, or what the war is all about.

It’s told in a simple and hallucinatory prose, with lots of repetition and near-repetition; Sashura, who helpfully (as always) explained a difficult word to me, wrote: “I love Okujava’s prose more than his poetry, his poetry has to be sung, but his prose – it sings all on its own.” And so it does.
The word he explained was конопушечка [konopushechka], which turns out to be a diminutive of конопушка ‘freckle,’ a word which for some reason is not in my dictionaries. (It’s a colloquial form of конопатина [konopatina], which is also not in my dictionaries.) But the first unusual lexical item that struck me in the story was the title of the first section, Сено-солома [Seno-soloma], literally ‘hay-straw.’ It turns out to be a jovial reference to a (proverbially slow-witted) peasant soldier, and its derivation is exactly that of English “hay-foot, straw-foot”; as the OED says: “with right and left foot alternately (at the word of command). Also as v. In allusion to the alleged use of hay and straw to enable a rustic recruit to distinguish the right foot from the left.” (For further analysis of that phrase and story, see this Log post.) I wonder what other languages have such a phrase?


  1. Russian traditional military training is largely a product of influence of Dutch advisers, and incidentally, Dutch Wikipedia may have the only entry about right and left directions, among all languages, with a specific bullet about hay and straw

  2. komfo,amonan says

    It may or it may not, Mockba, but the url has most certainly disappeared from your html.

  3. This is going very far off-thread, Hat, but Brown’s description of Okudzhava’s hero’s confusion reminded me of a similar scene in Gore Vidal’s ‘A Search for the King’ (1950, apparently), which I read many years ago. I didn’t like most of the book, but one chapter about a young boy’s chaotic and necessarily fragmented perception of a battlefield from the middle of the action struck me as very insightful. (Not that I can judge from personal experience). I wonder if Vidal and Okudzhava might have more in common than we think?

  4. Well, the context’s not exactly the same, but Spanish has ‘saber distinguir la paja del heno’ (roughly, ‘to be able to tell hay from straw’) as a somewhat dated idiom for ‘knowing the ropes’.
    I suspect the echoes of Luke 3:17 are as relevant in this case as a familiarity with wheat farming, although the Biblical reference doesn’t explain the choice of ‘heno’. Spanish versions of Luke 3:17 usually have ‘paja’ and ‘trigo’ for Greek ἄχυρον [áchyron, ‘straw; chaff’] and σῖτος [sĩtos, ‘grain’].
    CORDE has citations for expressions like ‘separar la paja del trigo’, closely following the Biblical model, from 1528, although some earlier instances may have escaped me because of spelling variants. I can’t find any examples of the ‘la paja del heno’ version there, though.

  5. In the English, Spanish and German expressions based on Luke 3:17, the words meaning (in each language) the same thing occur in different orders: separate the wheat from the chaff, separar la paja del trigo, die Spreu vom Weizen trennen. I can imagine these expressions might be partially due to what counts as euphonious in each language. On the other hand, these expressions themselves partly define what counts as euphonious.
    Separar el trigo de la paja: I can’t judge if that sounds a little more clanky. At first I thought den Weizen von der Spreu trennen must sound ugly, and would tend to shrink so as to become, say, Weizen und Spreu trennen. But the more I say these variants out loud in my head, the less “unnatural” they seem. So much for standards of euphony.

  6. Russians of a certain age will readily recognize “конопушка” from the tease-chant “Рыжий, рыжий, конопатый, убил дедушку лопатой!” in this children’s cartoon.

  7. Hungarian seems to have the same expression, “széna-szalma” (hay-straw) for “bal-jobb” (left-right), although this may have been borrowed from its Slavic neighbours. I can find only indirect references embedded in other texts, here or here for example. (FWIW, “széna-szalma” is also the name of a pasta dish, a folk festival, …)

  8. its derivation is exactly that of English “hay-foot, straw-foot”
    I didn’t know it had the English equivalent. How exciting! Could it be, it must be that the English/Scottish/Dutch officers in the Russian ‘new order army’ (late 17th C.) transposed their own military training technique onto Russian soil. And from what others are saying it might have been something widely used throughout Europe.

  9. Wimbrel, thanks for mentioning that, i was looking for that cartoon.

  10. a word which for some reason is not in my dictionaries.
    I’ve checked it in my dictionaries too, and was surprised not to find it. It’s not in Ozhegov’s or Ushakov’s, but it is in Yefremova’s. You have to Google for konopushka (only 59+ thous. hits) to find it.
    And thanks for mentioining my humble contribs.
    I stand by for what I said aboout Okujava’s prose, it’s wonderful.

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